Nova Scotia

Dartmouth overnight shelter believed to be a first for the city

Located in the gym of the Sonlife Community Church on Windmill Road in Dartmouth, N.S., the shelter has 10 beds for men, women and children, and is also believed to be the first adult co-ed shelter in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

Frank MacKay House opened its doors to the public on Saturday, but hasn't had any overnight guests yet

The beds at Frank MacKay House in Dartmouth, N.S., are separated by portable partitions for privacy. (Submitted by Warren Wesson)

A new 10-bed overnight shelter in Dartmouth, N.S., is believed to be the first of its kind in the city's history.

Located in the gym of the Sonlife Community Church on Windmill Road, the shelter has beds for men, women and children, and is also believed to be the first adult co-ed shelter in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

"If you find yourself in a situation where you need a warm, safe space, we're there," said Warren Wesson, one of the volunteers who runs the shelter.

The shelter opens its doors to overnight guests at 9 p.m. and closes at 7 a.m. the next morning. The beds get put away during the day while the space is used by the church.

Wesson said the decision to make the shelter co-ed wasn't a conscious one, but rather, they realized that anyone could be in need of a shelter.

Wesson has lived in Dartmouth for years and has needed to use overnight shelters in the past. He said the lack of overnight shelters on his side of the harbour is a problem.

Warren Wesson is a board member of the Dartmouth Shelter Society. (Submitted by Warren Wesson)

"It's a geographic challenge for people. If someone has a mobility issue or they simply find themselves looking for space and it's outside of ours, there's just a lot of mitigating circumstances," he said.

Wesson said the plans for the shelter have been quietly gaining traction since early 2018, when Tim Halman, the MLA for Dartmouth East, and Coun. Tony Mancini, struck a working group to address the housing crisis.

The group consisted of community members and MLAs, as well as organizations such as The Public Good Society of Dartmouth, The Salvation Army and Freedom Foundation of Nova Scotia.

The groups met multiple times throughout the year and then Wesson and others formed the Dartmouth Shelter Society, a non-profit organization.

Band-aid solution

Both Mancini and Wesson say the shelter is only a Band-Aid solution to a much larger problem.

"Affordable housing is a big part of this puzzle and we don't have a solution for it," said Mancini. "We're working on it."

He said affordable housing isn't just an issue for people without a home.

"It's maybe that single mom that's working a couple jobs, trying to make ends meet," said Mancini. "It's that student that's working two jobs just to pay for tuition. So, we have a long way to go for affordable housing, but as far as the emergency shelter, this is a big step."

Big community support

Wesson said they funded the shelter through fundraising and did not receive any grants or subsidies.

"We've been very lucky," he said. "We've had a lot of support from the community."

One large donation came from the family of the late Frank MacKay, a well-known Nova Scotian musician. After MacKay's death in March, the family held a benefit concert at The Marquee Ballroom in Halifax, with all proceeds from his posthumous album going to the Dartmouth Shelter Society.

Wesson said it seemed only fitting to name the new shelter after MacKay.

"We really appreciated the awareness that his friends and family brought to what we were doing," he said. "I didn't know the man, but I understand that it was in his nature to want to help people who just needed a hand."

No beds used so far

Since opening its doors on Saturday, Frank MacKay House hasn't had any overnight guests.

"I would've actually been quite surprised if it was automatically filled up because I don't think a lot of people even know it's there yet ... I think that people are largely, around the community, unaware that we're open," said Wesson.

The shelter is intended for short term and temporary stays because it exists in a shared space. But Wesson hopes the long-term shelters in Halifax will direct people in need to his shelter if they're at capacity.

Cheyenne Hardy and Colin McCrae make the shelter beds with blankets made and donated by the community. (Submitted by Warren Wesson)

"Trying to get into the existing shelter system is challenging every day," he said. "It ranges from challenging, to extra challenging, to heavy challenging. But it's never easy."

The shelter is run by volunteers, a practice Wesson would like to continue for as long as possible.

"That'll be my fight," he said. "I'll be working very hard to keep this a volunteer-run organization. That said, I have had a massive wake-up call as far as the amount of work that is involved, so the reality might override my idealism."

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